he woman at the corner of Seventh and Main, the one with the face twisted in some kind of strange loneliness, strained her head and kept her eyes on the line of cars waiting at the red light. She clutched a leather bag in her left hand. With her right hand, she gripped the open flaps of a crimson red robe and held them close to her neck to prevent the late morning breeze from exposing her aged body to the five cars beside her.
“Poor thing. She looks like she’s been rode hard and put away wet.” Ross’ mother sat in the passenger seat, a newly lit cigarette in hand, looking at the woman in the dark bathrobe standing three cars up from them. Wearing a headscarf over her freshly set perm, his mother tapped the tightened curls with her free hand. “She could use a comb to run through that hair. And some color to get rid of the gray.” She cackled. It sounded heavy, throaty. She was being cruel, but he was used to it. When Ross had picked her up at her apartment for her appointment, she pointed out his weight. “It’s time to lose that baby fat, kiddo.” He was turning thirty-one today. It wasn’t baby fat.
Ross let up on the brakes and the car crawled forward. He kept watch on the old woman. His mother was right. She could have used a comb. Her gray, frizzled hair stuck out in all directions, and she looked lost. Not the kind of lost when someone’s got the wrong directions. No, this woman was lost. Her eyes were wide. Her mouth open.
The woman took a step toward the street, and Ross, his head craning forward, saw her pale feet. “She’s barefoot.”
His mother laughed again. “What a mess. What a disaster. What’d you get yourself into, Missy?” She took another puff of her cigarette. He cracked the window. The spring air snuck in.
“Don’t open the window!” His mother slapped his shoulder. “It’ll mess up my hair, you know that.”
He rolled the window up. “Do you have to smoke so much though?”
She exhaled. “Your father would ask me the same thing, and I’ll tell you what I told him. I’ve put up with too much. If you don’t like it, suck on it.” She put the cigarette to her lips and held it there, breathing, sucking it all in. She did this to irritate him, Ross knew this, but he still wanted to reach across the seat and yank the cigarette out of her mouth and throw it out the open window, but the cars started to move. Ross eased his foot onto the gas. They passed the woman in the red robe. She bent to stare into the window as they drove by. Close up, her skin was wrinkled around the face. Her hair was thin.
“So long, Missy!” Ross’ mother chuckled and tossed her hand up in a wave.
Ross followed his mother into her apartment. He hadn’t been inside in months. She always insisted on coming over to his house, or if he picked her up, she’d be waiting outside. But today she had a gift for him.
“Don’t mind the mess. I’ve been busy.” She flipped a hand in the air at this and pushed the front door open. Inside, Ross held his nose when he got a smell of the perfume and the weeks of cigarette smoke. It was the stench of a sixty-eight-year-old woman’s one-bedroom apartment. Sitting at the front window, shaded by the drawn blinds, a large fern wilted in the corner, its leaves scattered on the floor. The brown couch in the living room was the same one he’d moved a year earlier. Only the color had faded. On the coffee table, two cups sat on top a stack of home and garden magazines. Both cups were half-empty. Dark brown rings stained the lips of each cup. Cigarette butts and ash spilled out of the blooming scarlet rose-shaped ashtray. Most of the cigarettes had lipstick on the filter.
Maybe he should’ve stopped by more often. That was one thought, but Ross wasn’t sure if he was serious about it.
His mother disappeared around a corner and from the sound of things seemed to be making a new pot of coffee in the kitchen. Ross moved a coat and a pile of clothes from the end of the couch and sat down. On the other side of the room, a small television, its rabbit ears crooked and jerked in an attempt to find a channel, tottered on the edge of an end table. A candle, down to its final burn, weighed atop the television.
But of all the things Ross saw in his mother’s apartment, the one item that truly startled him was the navy blue bathrobe dangling from the Barcalounger in the far corner of the living room. It nearly touched the carpeted floor, the dark blue terrycloth collecting specks of dust and crumbs. Its belt wilted across the back of the chair, the ends beginning to fray and split apart.
He thought of the woman he’d just seen at the corner, and he became concerned for the first time that his mother, alone in this apartment, could one day suffer the same fate. Before he saw the robe, the thought had never crossed his mind.
“What’re you looking at? I told ya I’ve been busy.” His mother came out of the kitchen with two cups of coffee. She’d taken off her headscarf, and she set the cups on the table.
“Nothing.” Ross picked a handful of magazines off the table and piled them beside another stack on the floor. He sipped the coffee. It tasted watery, and he spit it back into the cup.
“This tastes horrible, Mom.”
“Tastes just fine. Fix it the same every day.” She lit another cigarette and blew the smoke in front of her. Ross flapped his hand in the air.
“So happy birthday.” She raised her cup in the air to salute him. “Thirty-one. I remember when your father turned thirty-one. We’d just bought our first house. You were just a baby. Invited the Carmichaels over—you remember Terry and Karen—and your father, I swear, just went on and on about the place. You remember the one on Blossom Lane? New furniture, new appliances—everything. He even went on and on about the ceiling—who knows why? Well, Terry and Karen—they were older than us by about ten years, Lord knows why they ever thought to be around us—well, they got to fighting about one thing or the other. Who remembers why? Long story short, your father ends up having to drive Karen home that night. I guess Terry took a cab. Well, it took your father two hours to get across town and back. Said it was a flat tire. Flat tire my eye!”
The last time he’d heard that story, Ross’ father hadn’t come home at all that night.
“But you’re not like your father. Not a bit.” She shook her head and exhaled. The smoke drifted past Ross, and he waved his hand again. He got up from the couch and went to the kitchen.
“Seeing what you got to eat.”
The kitchen was narrow. When he swung open the refrigerator door, it hit the counter on the other side. Inside, there was a box of baking soda, two cans of beer, a jar of ketchup, a jar of mayonnaise, half a gallon of milk, and four Tupperware containers. He opened the gallon of milk. It had curdled. The rancid smell wafted to his nose, and he set it back in the refrigerator.
“There’s some tuna salad if you’re hungry.”
“You know I hate mayonnaise.” He checked each of the Tupperware containers. Every one of them was tuna salad. His nose crinkled. “You’ve got nothing in here. And your milk’s gone bad.”
“I know, I know. Don’t you think I can tell spoiled milk?” He heard footsteps on the carpet. Ross closed the refrigerator and found his mother standing in the kitchen. “Nothing much in there. I go out to eat most days. Me and some of the other ladies around here. We can go out for lunch if you want, birthday boy. My treat.”
Ross shook his head. “No, I’ll eat at home. There’re leftovers to finish.”
“Leftovers?” His mother sucked on a new cigarette. “When’ve you ever made anything that’s been left over?” She pointed at his stomach. Ross tugged the bottom of his shirt.
“Tara made spaghetti the other night.” She hadn’t really made it. Just noodles and canned tomato sauce. It wasn’t anything to rush home about, but it was better than tuna salad.
“She’s cooking for you finally?”
“You know she cooks for me.”
“She better. You’re doing too much as it is, working two jobs and everything. She’d better be cooking you a meal once in a while.” His mother eased herself over to the sink to drop her ash. Her free hand clasped hold of the edge of the counter. Ross saw her knuckles go white as they held tight to the laminate surface. “You still planning to marry her?”
“You know I am.”
“What about that daughter of hers? What’s her name? Melissa, Mandy, Morgan?” One final drag of the cigarette, and she exhaled.
“Megan. That one can be a brat sometimes.” She flicked the remains of her cigarette into the sink and ran the faucet.
“She’s fine.” Ross watched his mother in front of the sink. Her shoulders hunched forward. Her hands guided her as she stepped through the room. They moved from the counters to the cupboard to the faucet. They grabbed a glass and went back to the faucet to run water for her to drink. The whole time her hands were never completely steady. This was new to Ross. He hadn’t noticed anything in the car. He’d never bothered to look that carefully before.
“A brat.” His mother swallowed the water and set the glass in the sink. “She get you anything for your birthday?”
“She’s four, Mom. She didn’t get me anything.”
“Don’t mean a thing. You’re going to be her daddy one of these days.” Then she waved her hand at him. “Forget it. Tell you what. Go back in the living room and I’ll get your gift. Somebody’s got to give you something.” She left the kitchen, and Ross could hear her fingers running against the walls as she moved down the hallway toward her bedroom. “Be one minute,” she hollered.
Ross sat back on the couch and moved the new coffee cups beside the old ones. How long would they sit there on the table? He looked up at the navy blue robe again. It had been lived in, he could tell. He stood and went over to it. The cloth ran between his fingers. Who knew how long she’d worn this?
“What’re looking at now?” She’d come back into the living room, holding a flat box in her arms.
Ross let the cloth slip out of his fingers. “Nothing.”
“Better be nothing.” She handed the box to him. It wasn’t very heavy. “Well, here you are. Happy birthday to my favorite son.”
“I’m your only son.”
“I know, I know.” She waved her hand at him. “Open it. See what’s inside.”
They sat on the couch. The box didn’t have any writing on it. No wrapping paper. No bow. He slid the top off.
“Well? What do you think? Nice, huh?”
“It’s a set of handkerchiefs.” The package had a clear case top and Ross counted the three folded white handkerchiefs. He hadn’t thought much about what his mother would give him, but Ross couldn’t have been more underwhelmed by what he saw. The box just sat there in his lap. There were probably another ten to twenty of them just like this one still on the clearance table at the department store. The price tag had been removed, but the sticky adhesive remained, possibly as a sign that no matter what, these handkerchiefs would never leave him.
“Thanks,” was all he could say.
“I get tired of seeing you dress like a bum. The other day I saw a man who looked real nice, and he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket. He looked like such a gentleman. So I figured, why not Ross? He could use something to make him a little more stylish, am I right? These’ll make you look nice.”
Ross slipped the top of the box over the package of handkerchiefs. There was a spot in his dresser where they’d sit, unopened. In the sock drawer tucked beneath the cufflinks and tie tack from last year’s birthday. That’s where these would stay.
“What’re you thinking?” His mother reached for another cigarette. “You don’t like it.”
“They’re fine. Just great. Like a gentlemen, yeah.” Ross caught a smile at the corner of his mother’s mouth. She smoked her cigarette and looked at him. Her smile stayed hidden at the corners while she seemed to inspect him with his birthday gift. When she exhaled, she blew the smoke away from him.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Fine, fine. I just noticed how much you looked like your father.” She bent forward to tap her ash into the blossoming rose on the table. “You’ve got the same face he had. Just chubbier.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Now now,” she said, raising her hand. “Don’t throw a fit. I’m not going to say anything else. It’s something I happened to see.” She puffed her cigarette. “I don’t see your face that often. Been awhile since you’ve been over.”
“You never want me to.”
It was her turn to roll her eyes. “I do sometimes. I’m getting old, Ross.”
He thought of the empty refrigerator. Her hands. The coffee cups. The fern. The stacks of magazines. The robe.
“I know,” he said. “We all are.” He lifted his birthday gift off his lap.
“A gentleman. That’s what I want you to be. Just because you look like your father doesn’t mean you have to turn out like him.”
Her voice had changed. And Ross started to think he should visit more often. Maybe he’d help keep the place looking nicer. Water the plants. Stock the fridge. He’d throw away that navy blue robe.
He started home. He took unfamiliar turns, driving down strange streets. It wasn’t his normal route. Soon, his car pressed forward onto Main Street. Ross passed First, Second, and Third Street. The light was red on Fourth. He waited behind four other cars. The light turned green. Ross passed Fifth and Sixth Street. He slowed at he came to Seventh, and he searched the corner. There was nothing there. He scanned the other corners. Nothing.
He rested his hands on the steering wheel and kept going. In the passenger seat sat the flat box with the handkerchiefs inside. Ross wouldn’t hide them in the sock drawer. He’d use them. Tonight, he’d stuff one in his pocket when they went out to dinner. Maybe he’d get out the cufflinks and tie tack too. His foot pressed on the accelerator and he continued down Main Street.
Brian Seemann is a graduate of the Wichita State MFA program. His current work can also be found in the third volume of the Fast Forward Anthology.